The third annual Living Walls conference, which held public events August 15-19, gathered 26 female artists to create murals across Atlanta. In past years the conference had mirrored street art’s male-heavy scene and subsequently gave walls to very few women. They decided to change that this year, inviting both female street artists from around the world as well as including some non-street artists whose work could translate into the medium.
Olive47 is amongst the veteran female street artists, having worked in the genre since 1996. “Most people think I’m a Japanese man,” she shrugged as we sat on the sidewalk off Howell Street in Old Fourth Ward. I had been intermittently watching her clean up the outline of her elephant and observing the high school girls’ soccer team practicing across the street sprinting back and forth up a hill. Diverting my glance back to her with a suspicious squint, I asked why.
“There was this game, in the early 2000s or late ‘90s, which was kind of like MS Paint,” she said. “You could just do a really simple drawing and post it for other people to see. It was popular in Japan. So I did a little drawing every day for a year as Olive47, and that’s the only way people had heard of me at that time. I didn’t care; I thought it was funny. I don’t care if people know what I look like or anything.”
“Yeah, but don’t you care if people know you’re a woman?” I asked. “Like, as an artist, is it important to you?”
She paused for a moment, seeming confused, before explaining, “It’s so obvious, isn’t it? That I’m a woman. I think it’s obvious. My mark-making, my subject matter—if I looked at any of my work, I would assume a woman had made it.”
Olive’s attitude toward femininity in her art reflects the disposition found throughout the lectures and events that made up the Living Walls Conference 2012. At times it felt that the organizers were being blasé toward the feminist aspect, as if the act of inviting only women artists to make murals–making it the first all-female street art conference–was big enough to diffuse the need for solid discussion about the purpose of gathering all these women together. There was only one panel in the eight-hour, two-day lecture series that covered feminism in street art. However, Olive’s and Living Wall’s passivity might be more a symptom of current political activism which, in the internet age of instantly revealing lies and conspiracies, has come to value Doing over Talking.
Living Walls wanted to insure a festive atmosphere, and the sentiment was happily reciprocated by the attendees. People chatted with me on the sidewalk, unsolicited, at the Edgewood block party and map release (read: bar crawl). The evening concluded in a critical mass of bodies inside of Noni’s, where everyone non-ironically danced to the Spice Girls and N*sync (nostalgia at work already). I sang “My Girl” with a homeless guy and later found 10 dollars on the street, with which I bought my drinks. That night it seemed that there was more positive energy than that handful of blocks could handle.
If much of the Living Walls conference had the youthful, high-octane appeal of MTV from the ’80s, the two-part lecture series had the deliciously nerdy and earnest enthusiasm of NPR. The first phase of the symposium was surprisingly populated. Hosted by the Museum of Design Atlanta, it was held against the backdrop of the current skateboard art exhibit Skate It or Hang It!?, which made for an interesting visual during the panel on women in street art. Many of the boards, especially those from the 2000s, which are heavily influenced by video game graphics, feature absurdly exaggerated sexualized female forms. The panelists were tense and cautious throughout this talk, as if they were grasping for the correct language.
Their nerves were unaided by the crowd. The tension seemed to spike when RJ from Vandalog, who was featured on the panel in response to his much-debated top 50 street artists list that included only two females, concluded, “You know, as my girlfriend said to me, ‘Women just need to get up.’” The lady behind me loudly scoffed and murmured, “Jesus,” presumably with a perfunctory eye roll.
And while the chicken-or-egg argument—of whether women are less prominent in street art because there are less of them pursuing it, or whether it’s because they are socially limited by the relentless boy’s club rhetoric—is infuriating, RJ has a point. His quip simplifies a huge realm of feminist theory, history, and progress into a single, reductive sentence, but the endgame is the same: to see more women represented in street art.
The recent controversy over Hyuro’s mural magnifies the need for a more nuanced discussion of women’s roles in public art. (Click here for Debbie Michaud’s recap and critique of the media’s handling of the controversy.) The painting tells a story of metamorphosis in simple repetition: a woman puts on and takes off a dress that temporarily transforms into shaggy fur growing from her body, as if she has regained her natural state for a few moments. As she disrobes, the dress crumples at her feet, taking the form of a dog that walks off the wall without her. The levels of interpretation available within the work makes it artistically valuable yet, due to the public setting of the mural and the content being interpreted, also lends it many more ways for people to dislike it.
There is a tradition of asking forgiveness rather than permission in street art. Tina Arnold, who lives near the mural, stood up during the second lecture series focused on urbanism and community. Regarding the Hyuro mural she confessed, “If anyone had asked me beforehand, I would have been against it.” She paused before adding, “Well, I’m glad nobody asked me.” Her part of town, close to the intersection Sawtell and McDonough where the mural resides, counts prostitution–particularly child prostitution–amongst the major problems the community is combating.
Arnold spoke with me as we sat in the Plaza Theatre’s notoriously shabby seats while the panelists took a break. She told me that she is highly involved in her community and cares very much about beautifying it and making it safer, but she hadn’t known about the plans for the wall. I asked, “What made you end up liking it?”
“I usually don’t like nudes, but there it was. There were nipples, there was pubic hair … and then you look at the body, and you think, ‘Well, she’s not a lewd figure or the most sexually charged woman.’ I looked at her belly—it looked like she just had a child. Where does a child fit into this …? As you watch her, as she goes through life, first of all, she gets older. You see it on her face. Her head starts to droop when she’s in the wildness of the world. You see all of that. There is a lot of prostitution [in that area], but that pain could speak to a prostitute and let her know she can make it.”
It is yet to be decided whether or not Hyuro’s mural will be sanctioned to stay. Regardless of the decision, the conversations elicited by her piece (along with the conference’s lecture series) pushed this year’s Living Walls beyond the free-spirited atmosphere that attracted hoards of Atlantans to the various events. Communities within Atlanta are talking, and the discussions are more influential than any one panel or speaker.
Even if the conversation turns into disagreement, there’s now a widespread dialogue engaging people unconnected to Living Walls. Women “got up” last week, caused some trouble, and were recognized both internationally (for the unprecedented all-female format) and locally by catalyzing conversations between neighbors.